Friday, October 17, 2008

Politics from the Pulpit

This issue has been festering for a while, so I am likely to express myself rather hotly. On this issue, I'm going to bare my soul a little more daringly than I have in the past. As you read what follows, keep in mind my disclosures: I am a progressive, but I am not a Democrat; I have a campaign poster for Obama on my computer desktop (and one on my lawn), but he was not my first choice for a candidate; I belong to a very politically progressive (sometimes, I think, mindlessly so) Lutheran congregation (with a very traditional liturgical life) from which I would bolt were the pastor to make any pronouncement that smacked of a partisan political endorsement or denunciation (even though his politics are similar to mine); I take the First Amendment (both halves) with utter seriousness. Now, on with the rant.

The Gospel is fundamentally political. That is to say that the Gospel has implications for the ways that people structure their individual lives and the societies of which they are members. Whether one's thinking runs to Niebuhrian "realism" (whose "reality"?) or Hauerwasian Church-as-polis, she recognizes that the Gospel's message has direct impacts on the ways one builds a world -- and that includes the way that she votes.

But it's a majorly big step to go from that assertion to the claim that one can thereby justify the religious endorsement of political parties or candidates or (perhaps, I'm not too sure about this yet) particular pieces of legislation. The Constitution provides for the voice of the religious (I'm not going to say "church" at this point, because I believe that the Constitution is dynamic enough to encompass Muslims, even though the original drafters had virtually no experience or thought of them) in the "public square." But it is also clear that that provision does not extend to the official endorsement of any particular religious point of view. And one aspect of that balance has been written into the tax code.

Religious properties and enterprises enjoy an amazing exemption from the levy of taxes (property, income, and the like) and even from numerous laws that otherwise would apply to the kinds of work, service, and projects that congregations undertake. But that tax exemption (as with other tax-exempt organizations) requires that the judicatory, parish, or preacher refrain from partisan activities. Thus, if a mosque or emerging group wishes to avail itself of the tax exemption on its income, the leader must refrain from political endorsements, the congregation itself must not actively participate as an entity or under formal santion of the entity in any activities that promote one candidate over another. (Similarly, the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University was revoked because of its racial-segregation policies. The place wasn't shut down, of course; it was just denied the advantages that inhere in being tax-exempt: For example, gifts from donors are not deductible on the donors' tax returns.)

In the past, "the government" has done little nosing into religious activity (except sub rosa surveillance and the like). But you may remember that in the last election an Episcopal congregation in California (I think it was) got blasted by the IRS because an interim priest had the audacity to compare Bush and Kerry's stands on the Iraq war and included some criticism of the Bush's stand. (What would God say? What would Jesus want ... ?) But the same diligence has never appeared to apply to the right-wing worlds of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the like.

Recently a group of fools (they see themselves as "fools for Christ," but I don't think they're operating "for Christ") has determined to test the limits of the government's authority. Their practice was to endorse, from the pulpits in their official capacity as pastors, John McCain as the Christ-approved candidate for president. Their argument was that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States granted them the freedom to do so and that under the First Amendment, their tax status could not be touched.

Well, it doesn't take a law-school genius to see the foolishness of the argument, and it doesn't take a theologian with a PhD from Yale to recognize the stupidity of their claim. Nothing in the First Amendment guarantees them a tax exemption. It would be perfectly within the purview othe protections afforded by the First to levy a tax on relgious enterprises. That the policy of this country is to exempt religious organizations engaged in non-partisan activities results in a privilege, not a right. I think that these goons will be brought up short and their true motives will be made clear. (Although, under the Justice Department as it has developed over the last eight years -- see the Inspector General's report -- since the endorsements were of the Republican, it would surprise me if there were discernable action.)

On a larger and more troubling scale is the Roman Catholic problem. (How's that for framing in the worst possible way?) Several Roman Catholic bishops have recently gotten away with partisan pronouncements, and Lisa Sowle Cahill notes in her commentary here. Because(apparently) by their lights the only political issue that God cares about is abortion -- despite the almost innumerable letters, statements, encyclicals, and pronouncements to the contrary from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- a few bishops have issued decrees that Catholic voters must vote Republican, that the Democratic party (despite its having the strongest anti-war group, the healthiest social safety-net policies, and the like) is the "party of death," and the like.

I'm curious about this program for two reasons. First, it seems to demonstrate the foolishness of calling the Roman Catholic Church "one church" (any more than one denomination) if its hierarchy are so polarized, so partisan, so unwilling to look to the range of the Bishops' teachings as to allow some of the bishops to go off half-cocked with nary a peninsula to stand on. Second, will the partisan statements result in any serious governmental inquiry. Is the Roman Catholic Church in the United States just too big to allow to fail? Is it too big to take on? Is the project too risky, given the power of the core conservative-and-Catholic constituency on the Supreme Court?

Cahill's rather bland analysis highlights the complexity of Catholic teaching on the way that Catholics should be involved in the civic life of their country. Her analysis grows out of the teaching of the Church promulgated by the papacy and the conference of bishops in this country. That certain bishops decide that they can go their own way must be really embarrassing to sincere traditional Catholics for whom a "cafeteria approach" to truth is not an option for Catholics.

And on a practical note, despite at least six years recently when the "pro-life" party held control of the government -- legislative, executive, and judiciary -- abortion laws remained virtually unchanged, did they? So much for the practical implications of violating American law, bishops.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

From Levinas ...

OK, let's be clear: I'm no philosopher. (The list of what I am not would fill several blogs, but for today, that simple disclaimer is sufficient.) But I ran across some E. Levinas today, and I cite a few lines in honor of Jeff, who's taken over directing the Phenomenology center at Duquesne. (To be a little less modest: I did study phenomenology for half a semester in grad school, but it was way over my head then -- and likely is now, if I re-set my cap.)

The relation between the Other and me which dawns forth in his expression, issues neither in number nor in concept. The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that is common to us, whose virtualities are inscribed in our nature and developed by our existence.

(From Totality and Infinity, as quoted by Hans Boersmaa in Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross at p. 29)

I can place this is the general context of his thought (I have something less than a Levinas-for-Dummies idea of the trajectory of his thought on alterity, the Other, the Same, Face), and I find it lovely. His notion of hospitality, of the innate required-ness of hospitality for human life, seems very helpful for thiking about the ways we live consistent with the will of God. (Inasmuch as you have done this to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me -- for example.)

Does anyone out there have fondness for Levinas' philosophy? Are my instincts sound: Should I read more of him?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Reading the Bible -- And an Update


Today (Tuesday, 14 October) His Holiness has expressed himself in the Synod of Bishops (apparently a rarity in such Synods) on the issue of the interrelationship of exegesis and theological reflection. Here is John Allen's report. As he notes, we may expect the transcript of the remarks soon. And I, for one, am eager to see them.

Theological interpretation of the Bible is, of course, not a new thing; it is the oldest thing in the Church's life. But there is a renewed interest in the matter: witness that practically every serious Biblical-studies enterprise is launching a series featuring theological commentary on the Scriptures. (I'm fond of the Brazos series, but there are a passel of them coming from other places, too.)

This all cannot be a bad thing, I think. Talk about an evangelical-catholic approach to the Church's intellectual and spiritual life!

The original post:

The Pope has summoned and has now convened a Bishops' Synod on the Bible in the Church. His Holiness apparently intends to join the synod for most of the time (two weeks?) it sits, which tells you something about his investment in the matter, I think.

John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, is right now my only source of information on the Synod. But his reports have made me itchin' to be there. Here is his summary of the presentation by the Pope's close adviser, Bp. Fisichella, on the interdependence on the Bible and the Tradition of the Church. We Christians are not, said the Bishop, to see ourselves as a people of the Book, but rather a people of the Word.

My Lutheran heritage boldly trumpets "sola scriptura" and we found our faith more on Luther's disputed dicta, "Unless I am convinced from the sure evidence of scripture that I am wrong, I cannot, I will not recant. Here I stand; I can do no other" than on the Confessions in the Concordia. But close reading and thinking about "sola scriptura" reveals that it cannot be understood to encourage literalism or "fundamentalism"; we must read the Scriptures in the context of the Church. The Tradition and Scripture exist in dialectical tension as authority in the Church's life. The Bishop is right: We are not a "people of the book."

Sidney Griffin made much the same point in his presentation at the CCET conference in Baltimore this summer. Islam is most assuredly a religion of the book: The Quran figures in the life of Islam much the way that Jesus figures in Christian faith. The Bible does not occupy nearly the same place. But I don't intend to unpack that here.

We read our book in the light of and in conversation with those who have read it in the past -- the authors of the various books, the Fathers, the martyrs and scholars through history. I personally resonate to the notion of reading the Bible having developed and "inner eye of faith," as one of the other presenters said.

For now, I simply commend Allen's report to you and encourage you to research it more deeply. This is commensensical stuff, the implications of which deserve exploring.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

I Wonder ...

Here's a theological question of significant weight: I wonder what it means (or perhaps says about me) that the most common repeat (spam) e-mail I get is not for the little blue pill or for the charms of some winsome beauty (male or female) or for the opportunity to open my banking accounts to the infusion of millions of dollar by just providing the routing and account numbers, but for a paw-and-nail care system for my pet (in my case, dog). Now, mind you, I haven't opened the things for fear of what lists that might add me to, so the subject lines may be misleading. But it's really fascinating to me. I don't know whether to be amused, insulted, intimidated for what. For now, bemusement is my attitude, I guess.